Joe Thuney on Thursday became the first NFL free agent to sign his franchise tender, according to his agent, Mike McCartney.

The tender is a one-year, fully guaranteed contract that will pay the New England Patriots left guard $14.781 million for the 2020 season. It doesn’t necessarily mean Thuney will be staying with the Patriots, though.

With the franchise tender signed, New England now has three options:

1. Have Thuney, a second-team All-Pro last season and the Patriots’ best offensive lineman, play out the tender.

If they choose this route, Thuney would carry the team’s second-highest salary cap hit behind cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s (barring any additional big-money additions) and two of the Patriots’ five highest-paid players would be guards. Right guard Shaq Mason’s 2020 cap hit is $8.7 million, ranking fifth between right tackle Marcus Cannon ($8.9 million) and wide receiver Julian Edelman ($7.2 million).

That’s an extraordinary amount of money to dedicate to that position, making this option unlikely.

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2. Sign Thuney to a long-term extension, lowering his 2020 cap hit.

This is the Patriots’ stated goal, but it would obviously require cooperation from both sides. Thuney is under no obligation to sign an extension if he does not agree with the terms. Given the holes elsewhere on New England’s roster, this might be the team’s best course of action if possible, as maintaining O-line continuity would help whoever winds up replacing quarterback Tom Brady. Plus, Thuney is one of the top players in the NFL at his position.

3. Trade Thuney.

If the Patriots can find a partner for Thuney, who was expected to have a strong market in free agency, they can offload his salary and land a draft pick or player in return. This would free up the most salary cap space but would create another roster hole without an obvious choice to fill it. Hjalte Froholdt, a 2019 fourth-rounder, is New England’s top internal candidate to replace Thuney, and he has yet to play in a regular-season game.

If the Patriots do choose to move Thuney, they’ll likely ask for at least a third-round pick in return, as that’s what they likely would have received had the 27-year-old left as a free agent.

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